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Fit for Research: Students Attend Biology Boot Camp

This summer, Ursinus students contributed to research for Rutgers University’s Protein Data Bank, the national depository for protein structures.

How do three undergraduate quantitative biologists spend their summer vacation? At boot camp, of course.

Ben Allwein ’18, Stefanie Hawkins ’19, and Lilly McQueen ’19 joined Rebecca Roberts, an associate professor of biology, along with students and faculty from two other institutions, June 18-23 at Rutgers University. There, they worked together to investigate the role of proteins in antimicrobial resistance.

Call it quantitative biology boot camp.

“This experience will create student ambassadors who can return to Ursinus to infuse a sense of purpose into the work that we do here,” Roberts says.

The Rutgers trip was funded by a supplement to a National Science Foundation (NSF) grant that allows students from eight institutions across the country to participate in authentic, hypothesis-driven scientific research. The project began under a two-year NSF grant for $249,988, and has been funded for another three years under a $299,966 NSF grant. Roberts is a principal investigator on both grants.

Students from the eight schools learn to become scientists through a Biochemistry Authentic Scientific Inquiry Lab (BASIL) on their campuses. The eight institutions are Ursinus College; California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo; Hope College; Oral Roberts University; Purdue University; Rochester Institute of Technology; St. Mary’s University; and State University of New York at Oswego (SUNY Oswego).

In BASIL, neither the instructors nor the students know the outcome of the research they are doing. It is true scientific research. Ursinus takes the BASIL approach a step further by using it to model interdisciplinary research.

As part of this collaboration, Roberts helped develop a project that challenges students to discover functions for proteins of known structure, but with unknown function. At Ursinus, 51 students enrolled in structural biology and biochemistry courses have already performed research to determine protein functions. 

The BASIL project is part of two Ursinus courses simultaneouly: Structural Biology and Biochemistry II. The structural biology students use computational tools to investigate protein structure and deduce a possible function. Then, biochemistry students express and purify the protein and, informed by the insights of their structural biology peers, assay the protein for the proposed function.  The students presented together in cross-course groups at CoSA.

“Modern science is not a solo sport anymore,” Roberts says. “One of the things we want to teach our students is how to engage with other scientists that have different skillsets. None of us can do it on our own. The students are learning to speak to each other and learn from each other across these two courses that have very different languages and different approaches. I am assessing this novel teaching model and it’s neat to see it working.”

Earlier this year, Ben Allwein ’18 worked with Roberts to identify the function of a protein and presented his research at a conference in Chicago.

“The research we’ve done through the structural biology and biochemistry courses at Ursinus is significant to me because it totally redefines what a laboratory class is all about,” says Allwein, a biochemistry & molecular biology major. “I’ve come to understand labs as tried and true experiments that have been around for years—and although they’re important for demonstrating important concepts to young scientists, this experience is different because it teaches you to be comfortable with the unknown, and with saying, ‘I don’t really know. Maybe we’ll find out soon.’”

“Curiosity is, after all, what real science is all about, and the research we’ve done in my structural biology and biochemistry classes is so unique because it strongly cultivates that burning curiosity that so defines what science is and should be,” he says.

During their “boot camp” week at Rutgers, the Ursinus students gained a deeper understanding of the structural annotation process in the Protein Data Bank, the national depository for protein structures housed at Rutgers. That way, when a discovery like Allwein’s is made, it can be directly published to the database.

“It’s a way of getting their unique data out in into the world,” Roberts says. 

The Ursinus scientists joined students and faculty from RIT and Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, as well as faculty, postdoctoral fellows, and graduate students from Rutgers.  Ursinus alumna and current biology teacher at Spring-Ford High school, Mary Ann Group ’05, was also funded through the grant to attend.  She will be able to take what she learns back to her high school classroom to invigorate the training of scientists even earlier in their careers.

Roberts says one of the fundamental challenges in STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) education is teaching students what it means to be a scientist.  The BASIL initiative, she says, provides broader course-based undergraduate research experiences for students.

“The part of science that people don’t necessarily understand is that most of the time it doesn’t work,” Roberts says. “So, a lot of doing science is having the grit to continue when things don’t go the way you want.  These are young scientists, and what brings me joy is that they persevere through the process of discovery. It’s something we as educators have to facilitate even more to ensure student success.” —By Ed Moorhouse